Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a Democratic party leader on efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, announced Tuesday he won’t seek re-election next year after 13 terms.
“This is my time to move on,” the congressman said at a Chicago news conference. “I want to take my energy and abilities to somewhere where I know I want to place them.”
Oscillating between emotional and spirited, Gutierrez refused to call it a retirement, saying he still plans on advocating for immigrant rights and for storm-damaged Puerto Rico, where his family is from. After his term ends in 2019, he said he’ll travel nationwide with his family and wants to do it while he’s healthy.
He appeared alongside Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and endorsed him as his replacement. They both started their political careers together as protégés of the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.
Word of Gutierrez stepping down came as a surprise, especially since the 63-year-old filed candidate petitions for the Illinois primary with the State Board of Elections a day earlier. The late announcement gave potential successors to his predominantly Hispanic Chicago-area district less than a week to gather signatures to get on the March 20 ballot.
Gutierrez, first elected in 1992, is a leading member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and has become one of the most visible figures in the push for immigration reform. He’s been arrested for civil disobedience outside the White House and federal immigration offices numerous times, has backed legislation to help young people brought to the country illegally and has called for more English language proficiency programs and citizenship workshops. In immigrant circles and in his district, Gutierrez remains very popular and has easily won re-election over the years. His office has run robust constituent services, with immigrants nationwide seeking his help on their cases.
The congressman has clashed repeatedly with President Donald Trump, accusing him of committing “deep, permanent damage to the United States.” Gutierrez is among a small handful of House Democrats who have signed onto a largely symbolic effort to impeach Trump.
But Gutierrez was also critical of former President Barack Obama, whom he supported, for not halting deportations or doing enough on immigration reform.
In a 2013 memoir covering Gutierrez’s experiences about his early life in Chicago politics as an organizer and alderman, he described how he’s always identified with the immigrant experience.
Though born in Chicago with parents from Puerto Rico, he’s talked about how his family faced similar challenges as immigrants, like struggling with English and being treated like foreigners.
“It’s almost as though my life was a training for the ultimate battle of winning comprehensive immigration reform,” he told The Associated Press in 2013.
In recent months, Gutierrez, who maintains close ties in Puerto Rico, has pushed for federal aid to help rebuild after Hurricane Maria and brought relief supplies to the U.S. territory.
Gutierrez’s announcement raised questions about his political future.
He said he had no immediate plans to run for office in either Puerto Rico or Illinois, but didn’t exclude it in the future.
“I’m not going to rule that out,” he told AP. “I think there might be a possibility for me to run for public office.”
Gutierrez has previously flirted with a run for Chicago mayor, circulating petitions ahead of the 2011 election before deciding to sit out the race.
The next city election is in 2019. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff under Obama, has said he’s planning on a bid for a third term.
The congressman, who wiped his eyes during the news conference, said he’d continue to live in Chicago but travel widely in his activism.
“We are going to talk to people about creating a new energy and a new vehicle to prepare ourselves for 2020,” he said. “The second thing I’m going to do is I’m going to be spending a lot of time rebuilding my island … the ancestral home of Congressman Luis Gutierrez.”
With just days until major party candidate petitions are due for the Illinois primary, candidates began jockeying to replace Gutierrez. Democrats trying to replace him need over 800 signatures; the requirement for Republicans in the Democratic stronghold is far less.
Garcia, who is Mexican-American, said he was ready to pick up where Gutierrez left off and focus on similar issues. He has citywide name recognition, especially after forcing Emanuel into a mayoral runoff election in 2015.
Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said he was also circulating petitions for Gutierrez’s seat.
Alan Fram contributed to this report from Washington.